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Contemporary literary analysis of Virgina Woolf constitutes a kind of critical Wonderland where confused readers, like Alice, must heed the contradictory voices surrounding them. Whereas all three of these volumes purport to be beginner's guides to the life and writings of Virginia Woolf, they are guides aimed at audiences with divergent interests and needs. Aaron Rosenblatt addresses the commonest of common readers to whom the name "Virginia Woolf" is but a catchphrase in cultural mythology, whereas Alice van Buren Kelley aims her intelligent, well-written discussion at the undergraduate initially encountering To the Lighthouse. Rachel Bowlby writes to and for a different sort of tyro: one already well-versed in contemporary theory, especially the works of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Hélène Cixous, but unfamiliar with Woolf's volatile mixture of feminism, modernism, and realism.
The composite portrait of Woolf that these volumes sketch reflects not only the change in literary evaluations of Woolf over the last decade but also an emerging consensus concerning the major issues structuring both her life and her writing. Bowlby, Kelley, and Rosenblatt all focus on the essays, especially the major feminist essays, as useful frames for reading the novels; thus, all consider Woolf as a writer vitally concerned with history and politics as well as with artistic design and unity. All three studies also exemplify the difficulty of summarizing the deliberately elusive figure that Virginia Woolf constructed for her reader's edification and amusement.
It is unfair to compare the comic book format adopted by Rosenblatt with the more scholarly offerings of Kelley and Bowlby. It is enough to note that he narrates a popular version of her life and major writings, humorously juxtaposing photographs of Woolf and her circle with drawings done in the style of Beardsley, Morris, Tenniel, and British Post-Impressionists such as Bell and Grant. But Woolf simplified is Woolf parodied. As a dutiful if parodic biographer, Rosenblatt reads rather heavy-handedly, reducing her novels (especially Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse) to commentaries on her life. Whereas his tongue-in-cheek approach is sometimes effective, as when he captions a picture of Leonard Woolf with the query "Am I a Turn-On?," he is too often reductive and deliberately sensational, stressing the sexual nonconformity of Bloomsbury in a breathless, National Enquirer manner. He blames Leonard's abuse of authority, for example, for what he considers the (sexual) failure of the Woolfs' marriage. Similarly, he concentrates on the personal life, rather than the paintings, of Vanessa Bell.
It is also difficult to guess what audience he has in mind. The focus on Bloomsbury's sexual experimentation might easily offend those with a genuine curiosity about Woolf's literary experimentation and surely provides a limited context for reading the novels. This volume is not an appropriate gift for your grandmother [End Page 692] who has always wondered what it is that literary critics do, and it will strike anyone familiar with modern literature as temporarily amusing at best. Woolf's status as a representational modernist and feminist—as well as her frequent efforts at self-parody—make her an obvious candidate for popular hagiography cum satire, but the simplicity of Rosenblatt's approach tends to reinforce the caricature of Woolf as frigid, elitist, and razor-tongued. His incorporation of material from Moments of Being and her feminist essays merely works to provide causes for Woolf's less endearing idiosyncracies. The reader unavoidably thinks of how gracefully and wittily Woolf might have written a parodic biography of a parodic biographer like herself.
Kelley, who is undergraduate chairperson and associate professor at University of Pennsylvania, composes an elegant study that will undoubtedly benefit a generation of high school and undergraduate students (and their teachers). Her clarity in both thought and expression...